AS A FACT, the public domain dates from October 30, 1779, when Congress requested the states to relinquish in favor of the federal government all claims to the unsettled country between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. As a problem, it dates from the Act of Congress of May 18, 1796, which authorized the appointment of a surveyor-general and the survey of the Northwest Territory. As the responsibilty of a special branch of government, it was created with the General Land Office in April, 1812, eight and a half years after Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase had superimposed mystery upon wilderness, and added unmeasured millions of acres, unrealized opportunities, and unpredictable headaches to the national inheritance.
One of the principal reasons for the federal government’s desire to take over the public domain intact was to efface interstate boundary quarrels stemming from royal charters and grants. Its principal aim in establishing a plan of rectangular surveys of the public lands into ranges, townships, and sections was to avoid the irregular, difficult, badly marked, and often confused plot lines of the disorganized surveys of colonial times. The same system was continued in newly acquired Louisiana. Across the public lands, from 1812 onwards, the General Land Office imposed a grid of surveys upon which the small freeholds of the ideal agrarian democracy could be laid out like checkers on a board.
In any wilderness region surveys could be run as soon as it appeared that settlement was on the way1 — a skirmish line of squatters was as sure a sign of the need for surveys as swallows are of spring. Surveys were let out to local surveyors under the general supervision of the General Land Office, and if the original scientific intentions rapidly were lost, and if Land Office meridians sometimes had less than the desirable reference to true meridians,2 and if compass and chain erred, and though some men grew rich on the graft incidental to the partitioning of the land, nevertheless the Land Office Surveys made out to do their practical job. They divided the land so that titles could be issued to pioneer farmers, speculators, and the states and corporations given grants for wagon roads, canals, railroads, colleges, and other internal improvements. They proceeded without having to mind the debates between advocates of free land and those who believed the government should sell off the public lands for profit and a balanced budget. They were utilitarian only; policy was none of their business.
When J. A. Williamson took over as Commissioner in 1876, he could summarize the conditions under which he took office3 and show that the Land Office Surveys had reached westward clear across Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, across all but the upper Niobrara district of Nebraska, across the Red River Valley in Dakota Territory. Eastern Colorado, like the mountainous western slope, was unsurveyed. Wyoming had been touched only in its southeastern corner and along the line of the Union Pacific. Idaho had survey stakes only in three scattered districts around Bear Lake, Boise, and Lewiston. Montana was virgin unmarked plains except in its west-central section. In other words, the whole public domain from the Appalachians almost to the Rockies was laid out in townships and a great part of it disposed of by sale and grant and homestead. West of the Nebraska-Colorado line the surveys had touched the better-watered areas where settlement had first clotted. Like settlement, and as an inevitable corollary, the grid surveys were now beginning to fill in the areas between the Missouri and the Sierra-Cascade Mountains. And like the settlers who ventured out into the arid belt, the General Land Office was beginning to find that what worked well to eastward worked increasingly badly beyond the 100th meridian.
A firmly fixed pattern of settlement, of which the rectangular surveys and the traditional quarter-section of land were only outward manifestations, though in some ways determining ones, began to meet on the Great Plains conditions that could not be stretched or lopped to fit Procrustes’ bed. A mode of life that despite varying soils and a transition from woods to prairies had been essentially uniform from the east coast through Kentucky and Ohio and on to the Missouri or slightly beyond, met in the West increasingly varied topography, climate, altitudes, crops, opportunities, problems. The Middle West, geographically and socially and economically, was simple; the West was complex. Instead of the gentle roll of the great valley there were high plains, great mountain ranges, alkali valleys, dead lake bottoms, alluvial benchlands. Instead of trees or oak openings there were grasslands, badlands, timbered mountains, rain forests and rain-shadow deserts, climates that ran the scale from Vermont to the Sahara. And more important than all the variety which was hostile to a too-rigid traditional pattern was one overmastering unity, the unity of drouth. With local and minor exceptions, the lands beyond the 100th meridian received less than twenty inches of annual rainfall, and twenty inches was the minimum for unaided agriculture. That one simple fact was to be, and is still to be, more fecund of social and economic and institutional change in the West than all the acts of all the Presidents and Congresses from the Louisiana Purchase to the present.4
One of the most difficult operations for imperfect mortals is the making of distinctions, of stopping opinion and belief part way, of accepting qualified ideas. It is a capacity demanded by and presumably encouraged by the democratic process, and perhaps over a long period of time the history of America demonstrates its comforting presence among us as a people. But the individual who can modify or correct beliefs molded by personal interest or the influences of his rearing is rare, and was rare in the eighteen-seventies. It is easy to be wise in retrospect, uncommonly difficult in the event.
The Great American Desert, for example.
The notion of a Great American Desert east of the Rockies is almost as old as the public domain.5 Lewis and Clark, whose report was not published until 1814, did not use the term, though they mentioned dry streams and the lack of timber along the upper Missouri. But Zebulon Pike, in his report published in 1810, had told of finding a desert between the Missouri and the Rockies, some of it suitable for grazing but some of it bare dunes. He saw a real value in this desert, in that it would be a bar to settlement and would prevent the reckless extension and perhaps disintegration of the Union. John Bradbury and Henry M. Brackenridge, going up the Missouri in 1811, and Thomas Nuttall in 1819, contributed to the vaguely growing public notion of the lands beyond the Missouri, and they used terms such as “pathless desert” which had ambiguous connotations.
In part the notion of the Great American Desert is a matter of mere words, a semantic difficulty. The poetic and romantic meaning of “desert” was one thing, the popular meaning another. According to the one, any unpeopled wilderness, especially open grasslands but even dense woods, could be called a desert. According to the other, a desert must be a waste of naked sand and rock. Confusion between the two terms partly explains both the growth of the belief in the Great American Desert’s existence, and its denial. But specific reports had much to do with it too. Dr. Edwin James, the official chronicler of Major Stephen H. Long’s 1820 expedition to the Rocky Mountains, attested to the presence of a “dreary plain, wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence,” and hoped that it might “forever remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, and the jackall.” His map, which showed the “Great Desert” between the 98th meridian and the Arkansas, was widely influential, and his observations were borrowed by popular magazines and popular historians. By the mid-thirties the Great American Desert was firmly established on the maps and in the American mind, and it continued to be acknowledged for more than a generation. Thomas Farnham in 1843 divided the pre-montane West into three zones, the last one, from the 100th meridian to the Rockies, “usually called the Great American Desert.” Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies made a desert of all the plains between the Red River and the sources of the Missouri. Captain Gunnison, traversing the plains on his survey for the Pacific Railroad in 1853, arrived at the same conclusion. The report of the first Kansas State Geological Survey in 1866 held out no hope of an immediate settlement of the plains, and John Hanson Beadle in The Undeveloped West saw only wasteland for eight hundred miles west of the 100th meridian, and from British Columbia to Mexico.
Many of those reports are the soberest truth. But what came out of them is an indication of how an objective report, by the misinterpretation of a single word, can produce popular error. There was certainly a “desert” between the Missouri and the mountains, but it was not the endless waste of drifting sand that the word brought before the eyes of many readers.
The exaggeration of the Great American Desert is one expression of the unmodulated mind. The reverse expression comes from the tribe of Gilpin. Beginning in the late fifties and early sixties, when gold strikes had bred settlements at the foot of the Colorado Rockies, and venturesome farmers were led by the presence of a lucrative local market to try the soil and steer some mountain water onto a few acres, the conviction began to grow that the Great American Desert was poppycock. How could a desert support buffalo by the million, and Indians of fifty tribes? Local patriots loved anyone who, crossing the plains in the green of spring, scoffed at the calamity howlers. Travelers caught in one of the torrential cyclonic storms of the plains could look up and comment dryly, or wetly, on the aridity.
And circumstances combined with wishfulness to erode the notion that had been fixed for thirty or forty years. The seventies were a time of heavy rainfall; they were also the time of the panic of 1873 brought on by Jay Cooke’s collapse, and the perception that it was easy to pinch a farmer but hard to starve him may have encouraged the movement to the homestead country. Drouth and grasshoppers hurt the first years of the decade, but by 1878 a series of wet years and heavy crops had precipitated a rush. Between 1870 and 1880 the population of the wheat states and territories -Nebraska, Kansas, Dakota, and Minnesota — grew from less than a million to more than two and a half million. Final entries under the Homestead Act exceeded one and a half million in 1874, two million in 1875, and two and a half million in 1878.6
Farmers put their foot in the door of the West and waited. When nothing happened, they poked their heads in. When nothing still happened, they went all the way through. By 1878 they were jubi lantly confident that the grain belt was safe. The Great American Desert was laughed away, washed away in the flow of Gilpin oratory, advertised away in the broadsides of land companies and the railroad proselytizers. The enduring faith of William Gilpin that the desert was a myth was shared not only by travelers and publicists but by thousands of dryland farmers who could point to flourishing crops and steadily increasing rainfall. What had seemed to Pike a permanent barrier against settlement became a garden, a Canaan.7
Major Powell had watched that Canaan open. He had led his first expedition westward from Omaha by horse and mule team in 1867, through the dwindling buffalo herds. Cattle then were already moving north from Texas to the railroad towns. From Abilene, Kansas, the first cowtown, Texas cattle started east by rail in September of that year. In the next five years a million and a half longhorns reached Abilene from Texas over the Chisholm Trail,8 and by the same time the drives had reached far to the north and west. Jack Sumner, the Howlands, and Bill Dunn, moving leisurely from the winter camp on the White to their rendezvous with Powell at Green River in the spring of 1869, had found a herd of thousands wintering in Brown’s Hole.9 Two years later Powell’s second river expedition had found other thousands, with two Texan and ten Mexican herders, making use of the public range in that sheltered and temperate valley.
The plains north of the Union Pacific tracks were then still Indian country, full of hostiles and potential hostiles, the last strong-hold of the horse Indians and their sole resource, the buffalo. But the gold strikes in the Black Hills, the series of punitive campaigns after the Custer fight, the pinching of Sioux and Blackfoot and Crow and Arapaho and Snake into tight reservations, opened the northern plains that had been pioneered for cattle by Nelson Story’s drive along the Bozeman Trail in 1866. The big cattle rush in Wyoming and Montana was reserved for the eighties, but by 1878, according to Wyoming’s governor, there were already 300,000 cattle and 200,000 sheep in that territory alone.10 And already, along the streams coming down from the Front Range, in pockets along the edge of Uinta and Wind River and Abajo and La Sal, at old stage stations on the pioneer roads along the Platte and Blue and Smoky Hill and Canadian and Cimarron and Arkansas, there were squatters, nesters, petty cattle stealers, retired mountain men, Mormon colonists, venturesome dirt farmers — little dots of permanent settlement creating irregular but ineradicable squatters’ rights that had to be reconciled to the fixed procedures of the parceling surveys and at the same time were in conflict with the assumed proprietorship of the open range by big cattle outfits. ,
This was what stretched westward from the 100th meridian, this complex, misunderstood two fifths of the continental United States where men had come before law arrived, and where before there were adequate maps there were warring interests, white against Indian, cattleman against sheepman and both against nester, open range notions against the use of the newly invented barbed wire, Gentile against Mormon, land rights against water rights, appropriation rights to water against riparian rights to water, legitimate small settler against speculator and land-grabber. The public domain as Powell knew it was all of these, its only unity the unity of little rain.
The plains lay out between their swinging rivers, spring-green and summer-brown, treeless except for the belts of cottonwood along water, deserted except for coyotes, an occasional shanty, the un-gathered bones of the buffalo, domed over by a great bowl sky that filled and overflowed with dramatic weathers, with cloudburst and cyclone and blizzard and heat wave, but that occasionally glowed with a bell-like purity of light and at whose western edge the sun set in clear distances of lavender and saffron. Beyond the plains went the wrinkled spine of the continent, range after range, bare granite, black spruce, gold aspen on the autumn slopes, timbered valleys where the warriors of Antero and Douglas and Ouray still found elk and bear, and where even while Powell organized his support for a political fight in Washington those same Ute warriors were falling upon Nathan Meeker and all the men of his agency for the sin of Calvinist inflexibility. Beyond those ‘mountains and plateaus westward from the final scarp of the Wasatch above the Mormon New Jerusalem, the veritable and incontrovertible desert stretched across salt flat and dead lake bottom and barren range after barren range to the Sierra where the West ended and California began. On the eastern edge of the Sierra the Sutro Tunnel had just begun draining the hampering water from the Comstock Lode.11 From there on, other interests than those of cattleman and Mormon and nester were entrenched. There the public domain, to all intents and purposes, ceased. Much California real estate was obscured by Spanish and Mexican land grants, by early squatting before any surveys, by mining claims, by such legislation as the Swamp Land Act which endowed the state with 2,000,000 acres of public land. But in the 1400-mile strip between the Sierra and the ragged front of settlement in Nebraska, Kansas, Dakota, and Colorado the public domain was a fact, a problem, a challenge, and a threat. Left to the folklore of farmers and the greed of land-grabbers, it could come to spoliation, waste, frustration, anger. Quilted by their land-grant strips, the railroads that reached through it, including the Northern Pacific that Henry Villard had just raised from the wreck of Jay Cooke’s collapse, might tap a rich empire or they might tap bitterness and rebellion. The inevitable beneficence of the railroad was part of the garden-myth that American and immigrant settlers took west with them. Henry George, who would prick that bubble, was in 1878 just about to send to press a book called Progress and Poverty that would become a bible for Grangers and Populists and Single-Taxers and breed something close to revolution among the very men whom the myth designated as the happy beneficiaries of railroads and free land. George would offer a public of millions of readers an analysis of economic facts, and no one would seriously shake his diagnosis of what was happening to the American West. But in the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region Powell offered an analysis quite as revolutionary and original, and a solution more practicable than the Single-tax. He offered a blueprint for laws and human institutions that would, if adopted, remake society and thought in the area they affected, and in doing so might alter even the seemingly inevitable movement of Henry George’s economics.
The justifications for reform were extensive, for every condition of land and climate, and every successive land law except the Timber Culture Act of 1873 worked against the city mechanic, immigrant, ambitious farm boy, or struggling three-time-pioneer who according to the myth would create the happy American yeomanry in the Western garden land. By the time the Homestead Act was passed in 1862, settlement was already at the edge of the subhumid belt. By the time the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 were piled upon the existing jumble of Pre-emption Act, public sales, railroad grants, Indian and soldiers’ scrip, and Homestead Act, there seemed to be many avenues to opportunity for the yeoman, and yet every one tempted him into an enterprise with a sixty-six per cent chance of failure. Despite incandescent enthusiasm for the Homestead Act at home and abroad, the forty years before 1900 saw no more than 400,000 families — about 2,000,000 people — homestead and retain government lands. Yet in that time the population of the United States grew by 45,000,000.12 The function of the open West as safety valve was greatly exaggerated if in that period 43,000,000 potential home-seekers either could not take advantage of free land or failed to hold their claims.
Suppose a pioneer tried. Suppose he did (most couldn’t) get together enough money to bring his family out to Dakota or Nebraska or Kansas or Colorado. Suppose he did (most couldn’t) get a loan big enough to let him build the dwelling demanded by law, buy a team and a sodbuster plow and possibly a disk harrow and a seeder and perhaps a binder — whatever elements of the multiplying array of farm machinery he had to have. Suppose he managed to buy seed, and lay in supplies or establish credit for supplies during the first unproductive year. Suppose he and his family endured the sun and glare on their treeless prairie, and were not demolished by the cyclones that swept across the plains like great scythes. Suppose they found fuel in a fuelless country, possibly digging for it, as Gilpin suggested, but more likely burning cow chips, and lasted into fall, and banked their shack to the window sills with dirt against the winter’s cold, and sat out the blizzards and the loneliness of their tundra-like home. Suppose they resisted cabin fever, and their family affection withstood the hard fare and the isolation, and suppose they emerged into spring again. It would be like emerging from a cave. Spring would enchant them with crocus and primrose and prairies green as meadows. It might also break their hearts and spirits if it browned into summer drouth. The possibilities of trouble, which increased in geometrical ratio beyond the 100th meridian, had a tendency to materialize in clusters. The brassy sky of drouth might open to let across the fields winds like the breath of a blowtorch, or clouds of grasshoppers, or crawling armies of chinch bugs. Pests always seemed to thrive best in drouth years. And if drouth and insect plagues did not appear there was always a chance of cyclones, cloudbursts, hail.
It took a man to break and hold a homestead of 160 acres even in the subhumid zone. It took a superman to do it on the arid plains.13 It could hardly, in fact, be done, though some heroes tried it. Most of the city mechanics whom Destiny had called to earn prosperous homes by the labor of their hands were driven back to the cities sooner or later. Even the ambitious farm boys who knew wheat farming from the clods up and were inured to the hardest kind of labor, the boys like Hamlin Garland, did not do much better. Quite as often as not it was the immigrants who stuck it out and eventually made it. Having gambled their savings and their entire lives for the chance, they were not often driven out by anything short of annihilation.
Those who were defeated, and up to 1900 two thirds of those who tried it were, were by the normal course of events in peonage to the banks. A mortgage was more common on a western farm than a good team. The Homestead Act and other laws made no provision for government loans and did not insist, as they might have, that abandoned claims be returned to the public domain for the benefit of other homesteaders. The land of the failures went to the banks, and thus onto the market, and often into the accumulating domains of speculators or large ranch companies. In the end, the Homestead Act stimulated the monopolizing of land that its advocates had intended to prevent.
Later acts, though their passage indicated a dawning and confused awareness of the inadequacies of the existing system, helped the small farmer very little. The Timber Culture Act, which permitted a man to file on an extra quarter-section if he planted and sustained a certain acreage of trees, did allow some farmers in the subhumid zone to acquire the additional land that all western farms had to have before they became economic units. A quarter-section in the arid belt, or in the subhumid belt during a dry year, would hardly graze four steers. Timber culture, being necessarily confined to the easterly fringe of the arid lands, did not ordinarily conflict with the land accumulation of big cattle outfits, and it did create some belts and groves of trees in country where every tree is beyond price, and it did help some Kansas and Nebraska farmers achieve independence by doubling their acreage. But succeeding acts, the Desert Land Act and the Timber and Stone Act, could hardly have been better devised to help speculators and land-grabbers if they had been written for that specific purpose. Even if the provisions of the laws had been honorably observed, which they were not, the net effect would have been to concentrate western grazing and timber land in the hands of large companies. The irrigation demanded before title could be obtained under the Desert Land Act was usually impossible for the single farmer. And those lands “unfit for settlement” which were open under the Timber and Stone Act were, like the desert land, transferable before final proof of title, unless fraud was provable. Fraud was never provable, but it was estimated that ninety-five per cent of final title proofs were fraudulent, nevertheless.14 For a fee, settlers filed, and then sold to some corporation and moved on.
In actual practice almost the only real benefit that the landless and moneyless man, the mechanic or immigrant or farm boy, could derive from the public land laws was the chance for a little graft. There were plenty of men, big and little, who observed Simon Suggs’ motto that it is good to be shifty in a new country. The more enterprising of these provided examples and opportunities for the smaller fry. Instead of breaking back and heart trying to work a hopeless quarter-section, a yeoman might do better to build a little birdhouse say twelve by sixteen inches, and carry it around to strategic places suggested to him by entrepreneurs, and later swear, for a fee, that he had seen a house twelve by sixteen on such and such a claim. He might mount a little shack on a wagon and do the same; for many purposes mobility in a shack was worth more than durability. Or he could drive around from claim to claim with a barrel and a bucket and pour a little water on a parcel of desert land and later accommodate the boss of some cattle company by swearing that he had brought water to that claim. Under a series of names he could file one claim after another and after six months commute each one — that is, buy it outright at $1.25 per acre — and turn it over to the speculator in whose interest and with whose money the whole transaction had been made.
There were several ways in which the land laws benefited the little man, but the acquisition of land was seldom one. The alien sailors who were hired to do a little service for the California Redwood Company discovered one of the best. In batches of twenty-five they were marched from boardinghouse to courthouse, where they filed first citizenship papers. From the courthouse they passed to the land office, where each filed on a timber claim. From the land office they went to a lawyer‘s, where they “executed an acknowledgement of a blank deed.” From there they proceeded to the office of the company which now owned twenty-five new timber claims, accepted fifty dollars each for their labors, and marched back to the boardinghouse. 15
Those sailors had a fast look at the American Way as it was developed under some of the public land laws in the West. If they were either very smart or very considerate of themselves they would probably not be tempted by that other American Way represented by the yeoman farmer who from Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt was held to be the backbone of the Republic. The yeoman and his version of the American Way were having a hard time as settlement approached the arid zone, and under the existing system of improvised, loosely phrased, loophole-riddled, corruptly administered, and universally abused law he would continue to. The German butcher boy Henry Miller, who at his peak would own or control a million acres in California, Oregon, and Nevada, and would dominate a hundred miles of both banks of the San Joaquin, was only one of many whose practices gave weight to the words of Henry George.16 The public domain was going, and going in useless and unworkable parcels to impossibly handicapped small farmers, or in wholesale lots to great landholders and great corporations. But even yet it was not too late to do something.
Almost alone among his contemporaries, Powell recognized the opportunity that lay there to be seized, but already pulling away, already beginning to vanish. Almost alone among his contemporaries he looked at the Arid Region and saw neither desert nor garden. What he saw was the single compelling unity that the region possessed: except in local islanded areas its rainfall was less than twenty inches a year, and twenty inches he took, with slight modifications for the peculiarly concentrated rainfall of the Dakotas, to be the minimum needed to support agriculture without irrigation. In no other part of the United States did that aridity pertain, though in what he at first called the subarid zone between about the 97th and 100th meridians there were sure to be dry years.
He saw also the variety, caused by altitude, latitude, topography, climate, soil, that characterized the West in contrast to the essential unity of the Middle West and East. A state like Iowa, nearly one hundred per cent arable, was one thing; a state like Utah, where the arable land was probably less than three per cent of the total area, was another. Land in Utah lay at altitudes varying from three thousand to over thirteen thousand feet. Much of it was too high for crops, much of it too stony, almost all of it too dry. For Utah, and for the whole arid region of which it provided the type, it was essential to differentiate the uses to which land could be put. For several years he had had his crews designating lands they surveyed as mineral, coal, timber, pasturage, or irrigable lands, and he knew that each of these would require different laws and perhaps different kinds of survey.17
Mineral lands, already well segregated by prospectors and by the formation of mining districts, were fairly easily set aside, and coal lands were so extensive, especially through the Plateau Province, that it would be impractical to separate them except as they lay in accessible regions. Powell was not much interested in mineral and coal lands anyway: he would have agreed with Brigham Young, who damned miners to hell across lots and forbade his people to dig for precious metals. So far as the federal surveys went, minerals were the special province of Clarence King and his associates Arnold and James Hague, Samuel Emmons, and G. F. Becker. The timber lands, lying almost wholly at high altitudes and in difficult terrain, were almost certain to be developed by special timber interests ; he thought then they could be of little usefulness to settlers. But farmlands were another matter. Powell was a son of the midwestern farming frontier. He had run a farm almost by himself before he was into his teens. His interest in the public domain was primarily an interest in the land as it might be settled by small farmers. Hence his report gave irrigable and pasturage lands primary attention.
The two differed little except in the availability of water, for most western soils were exuberantly fertile if water could be applied. But topography controlled what lands could be irrigated, and the amount of water that could be brought was limited. Powell had watched the pioneering of irrigation among the Mormons, and had followed the difficulties that attended the establishment of water-works for the raw settlement of Kanab. He knew the man-hours needed to harness a creek and engineer miles of ditch to water the fields of a town. The irrigation which was “as easy as fencing, which it supersedes,” he knew nothing of — that was an illusion of Gilpin’s. But he knew the sweat, the labor, the anxiety, the danger of flash floods that could wash out a dam and bury fields in unprofitable gravel, the wasteful breaks in ditch that could leave a village dry. For two field seasons he had had Thompson, Dutton, and Gilbert checking the water supply and the irrigable lands of Utah and testing the maximum acreage that under varying conditions could be irrigated by a second-foot or an acre-foot of water. All three men, Gilbert and Dutton especially, were first-class observers. In all of Utah, the type area, they had located only 2262 square miles of land even potentially irrigable. That was less than three per cent of the area of the territory. Nobody has corrected them notably since: in 1945 the cultivated area of the state, includ ing dry farms, was 3.3 per cent.18
Where water was available an irrigated farm was the safest in the world, for it depended on no meteorological luck, and properly watered it had its fertilizer spread upon it naturally every year in the form of silt. One hundred and sixty acres in the arid region was utterly incapable of supporting a family without irrigation, but with irrigation it became more than one man could handle. Irrigation agriculture was intensive, it took time and care, and it produced extravagantly. Powell therefore recommended eighty acres as the homestead unit for irrigated farms. But for pasture farms he proposed units of 2560 acres, four full sections, sixteen times the normal homestead.19 That was calculated to shock the orthodox, and yet in making the suggestion he apologized to many of his Western friends who assured him that he had made the unit too small.
In multiplying the usual homestead by sixteen, he was taking into consideration the native grasses, nutritious but scattered, many of them annuals that reproduced only from seed. In country where it took ten, twenty, fifty acres to graze one steer it was easy to over-graze and destroy the range. That was why a herd that would support a family needed at least four sections, and preferably more, to run on. Also, before this pasturage farmer who was possessed of what would have been a dukedom in a humid country could make a living off it, he needed other things as well. In his suggestions for these, Powell broke even more sharply with tradition.
Water, for instance. In general, American law was based on English Common Law. But the Common Law, accumulated out of the experience of a rainy country where water was no problem, affirmed only what are known as riparian rights to the water of streams. The man who owned the bank could make any use that he pleased of the water, but he had to return it to the stream when he was through with it. That worked for running grist mills, but it did not work at all for irrigation, which used the water up instead of taking advantage of its passage. In the West, before and since Powell’s time, there have been heads broken with irrigation shovels because of someone’s attempt to apply riparian law upstream, and take uncontrolled advantage of the water. In an irrigating country, appropriation becomes an essential criterion, and delicate refinements about more or less beneficial uses, and priority, and dipping rights, and a great many other complications still unheard of when Powell wrote. There was nothing wrong with riparian law for the West except that downstream bank-owners sooner or later found themselves with riparian rights to a dry creek bed.
, Water is the true wealth in a dry land; without it, land is worthless or nearly so. And if you control the water, you control the land that depends on it. In that fact alone was the ominous threat of land and water monopolies.
To prevent this - or to stop it, for it was already beginning to happen — Powell made two proposals. One was that each pasturage farm should have within its 2560 acres twenty acres of irrigable land with a water right that was inseparable from the land. Those twenty acres would insure a garden patch and a plot of irrigated hay or alfalfa for wintering or fattening stock. But to arrange either pasturage farms or irrigation farms so that water and irrigable land were equitably divided meant making an entirely new kind of survey. The rectangular grid of the General Land Office could easily leave all the water for miles within a few quarter-sections, and the man who obtained title to those quarters could control thousands of surrounding acres. Instead of rectangular parcels, therefore, Powell proposed surveys based on the topography, letting farms be as irregular as they had to be to give everyone a water frontage and a patch of irrigable soil. By that system it would be possible not only to prevent monopoly of water and hence of land, but to carve the maximum number of freeholds out of any usable part of the public domain. Whether any region should be divided into 2560-acre pasturage farms or into 80-acre irrigation farms was a matter to be determined by survey or by the settlers. In either case, a homesteader would have a guaranteed water supply and an assurance that with normal diligence he could not be burned out.
Up to that point, Major Powell was proposing a revolution in the land laws and in the nature of the General Land Office surveys, both sufficiently sacrosanct in the popular mind, but both open to corruption and misuse, and both already under fire. He went further by recommending the abolition of the surveyors-general and the practice of farming out survey jobs to local contractors. To eliminate waste and graft, he wanted land parceling turned over to the Coast and Geodetic Survey, which with its precise determination of points and elevations was equipped to make a much more accurate job of it and which as a central scientific bureau was above being bought. That would have taken surveying out of politics and restored it to science.
But his logic led him further still. The Mormons of Kanab and the Sevier Valley towns had taught him more than irrigation. From them he had also got a notion of how salutary co-operation could be as a way of life, how much less wasteful than competition unlimited, how much more susceptible to planning and intelligence, how much less destructive of human and natural resources. The last step of his proposal to Land Commissioner Williamson, and through Williamson to Carl Schurz, and through Schurz to the Congress, embodied official encouragement of a social organization thoroughly revolutionary in 1878. It was so far beyond the social and economic thinking of the period that popularized the pork barrel as a national symbol and began the systematic gutting of the continent’s resources and developed to its highest and most ruthless stage the competitive ruthlessness of American business, that it seems like the product of another land and another people.
It was clear that individual initiative and individual labor and individual capital were inadequate to develop the irrigation works needed on an arid-belt farm unless the farm were located high on the headwaters of a small stream. It was equally clear that the earliest development would be and had been on these high small streams, and that on the larger and lower reaches where cultivable land was much more extensive and the growing season longer the cost of dams and ditches was prohibitive. It was also clear that use of the water at high levels on marginal land with a constant danger of frost damage robbed the potentially more productive areas below. In those circumstances there were three possibilities: (1) Private capital could develop — and monopolize — the water of the streams, thus putting the small farmer in a status close to peonage. (2) The government could develop and distribute the water for the public good. (3) The people themselves, by co-operative effort such as that of the Mormons, could organize and develop in unison what was impossible for anyone singly.
Similarly, if range put under fence tended to become unevenly grazed, and often overgrazed, and if fences were death traps to cattle drifting with the winter storms, then the open range was preferable. But the open range was useless without water, and sources of water were often far apart. Under the present laws, a man or a corporation could gain title to the water, or seize the water by force or priority, and fall heir to thousands of surrounding acres. To combat that tendency, Powell proposed leaving to the people in co-operative unions the control of pasturage lands: in effect, he advocated the sort of community common range — the ejidos — that the Spanish villages in New Mexico had had since the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The gun he handed Congress was loaded, for included in it were two sample bills. One provided for the legal organization of any nine bona fide settlers of irrigable lands into irrigation districts capable of self-government. The tract involved should be continuous and should be split into farms not exceeding eighty acres. On demand the Surveyor-General of the United States would provide a cadastral survey on a pattern established by the farmers’ association itself, conformable to the topography and the agreement among the individual settlers. After three years of demonstrated irrigation of the lands, the Land Office should issue titles to each person in the irrigation district, this title to include a water right. Only if the water were not used for five years could the water right be separated from the land. The second sample bill was similar in that it provided for co-operative organization of pasturage districts for the communal grazing of cattle and the communal use of limited water rights for a maximum of twenty acres per farm.
Both proposals were predicated on an abrupt halt to the characteristic design of settlement. Here would be no pioneer farmer hewing out a clearing and burning stumps to make a corn patch, no Illinois immigrant turning the prairie sod and planting his potato peels to make a first-year crop. The inflexible fact of aridity lay like a fence along the 100th meridian. From approximately that line on, more than individual initiative was needed to break the wilderness. Powell’s way was a way tested by New England barn raisings and corn huskings and all the co-operative habits of country America, tested even more fully by the Mormon experience of thirty years and the New Mexican experience of ten generations. It was recommended by logic and demanded by the hard conditions of western climate and geography. In details it could probably bear revision; in general it was inescapable. If it had been adopted it might have changed the history of a great part of the West.
But it was revolutionary. It was as bold as Powell’s plunge down the canyoned river, for it challenged not only the initiative, individualism, and competitiveness which were quite as marked as co-operation in the American character (de Tocqueville had commented on that dichotomy in the infancy of the Republic) but it challenged as well the folklore bred up through generations of frontier farmers in a country of plentiful rain. It challenged too the men who were already beginning to ride like robber barons and kings over the public domain, and the corporations who were already, with Scottish and English and American capital, beginning to acquire those water-bearing half- and quarter-sections upon whose possession depended the control of range to support a cattle empire. As a government scientist, Major Powell was not now defying ignorance. He was taking on vested interests and the vested prejudices by which they maintained themselves.20
Seven years after submitting the Arid Regions report, Powell spoke before the Anthropological Society in Washington, and in an entirely different connection gave fuller and more philosophic expression to his belief in man’s social responsibility and the need for co-operation which dictated and underlay at every point his program for the West. He was enough of a believer in Lester Ward’s dynamic sociology, or enough of an advocate of Lewis Morgan’s systematic view of development among the tribes of men, to have made for himself a clear connection between Western land laws and the evolution of homo sapiens Americanus. There were ways in which mind and forethought could modify the social evolution of a people. Actually, it is a kind of testament:
By the division of labor men have become interdependent, so that every man works for some other man. To the extent that culture has progressed beyond the plane occupied by the brute, man has ceased to work directly for himself and come to work directly for others and indirectly for himself. He struggles directly to benefit others, that he may indirectly but ultimately benefit himslf. This principle of political economy ... must be fully appreciated before we can thoroughly understand the vast extent to which interdependence has been established. For the glasses which I wear, mines were worked in California, and railroads constructed across the continent to transport the products of those mines to the manufactories in the east. For the bits of steel on the bow, mines were worked in Michigan, smelting works were erected in Chicago.... Merchant houses and banking houses were rendered necessary. Many men were employed in producing and bringing that little instrument to me. As I sit in my library to read a book, I open the pages with a paper cutter, the ivory of which was obtained through the employment of a tribe of African elephant hunters. The paper on which my book is printed was made of the rags saved by the beggars of Italy. A watchman stands on guard in Hoosac Tunnel that I may some time ride through it in safety. If all the men who have worked for me, directly and indirectly for the past ten years, and who are now scattered through the four quarters of the earth, were marshaled on the plain outside of the city, organized and equipped for war, I could march to the proudest capital of the world and the armies of Europe could not withstand me. I am the master of all the world. But during all my life I have worked for other men, and thus I am every man’s servant; so are we all — servants to many masters and master of many servants. It is thus that men are gradually becoming organized into one vast body-politic, every one striving to serve his fellow man and all working for the common welfare. Thus the enmity of man to man is appeased, and men live and labor for one another; individualism is transmuted into socialism, egoism into altruism, and man is lifted above the brute to an immeasurable height ....21
He did man more honor than he deserved. Not everyone was yet willing, at least in 1878, to work for the common welfare or even agree on what the common welfare was. Not everybody in the West, not everybody in Congress.